Rheumatoid arthritis causes chronic inflammation that affects not only the joints but other organ systems, too. One of the more unusual symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis is brain fog.

Many people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) report having trouble thinking clearly, problems with memory, and difficulty concentrating.

These symptoms, known as brain fog, can occur in people with chronic inflammatory conditions, including RA, Sjogren’s syndrome, and multiple sclerosis.

It is not exactly clear how common brain fog is in people with RA because there is limited research on its prevalence. However, studies show that some type of cognitive impairment may impact 38–71% of people with RA.

The research defines cognitive impairment as a “difficulty in remembering, learning new things, problem-solving, concentrating, or making decisions.” However, the specific symptoms can vary from person to person.

With proper treatment and by taking preventative steps, a person with RA may be able to get the brain fog to lift.

People mostly associate RA with swollen and painful joints. However, for some people with RA, that is only one of the symptoms they face.

RA is a chronic condition that causes inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation can lead to joint pain and stiffness, swelling, and decreased joint mobility.

However, RA can also affect the eyes, skin, lungs, and brain. Many people with RA and other chronic inflammatory conditions also complain of feeling mentally foggy and having difficulty thinking.

Why do rheumatoid arthritis brain symptoms develop?

Scientists believe there may be a link between chronic inflammation and the cognitive impairment that people refer to as brain fog. This can be a result of various factors, including:

  • The impact of chronic RA inflammation on the brain. A 2018 study showed a link between this inflammation and changes in the patterns of brain connections. It also showed a lower volume of gray matter in an area of the brain known as the inferior parietal lobe. The study suggests that fatigue, pain, and an impaired ability to think are associated with these brain changes. These alterations to brain tissue may have a role in converting inflammation signals to the rest of the central nervous system.
  • Corticosteroids. The risk of cognitive problems may be higher in people who use corticosteroids as an RA treatment and who have risk factors for heart disease, which include high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
  • Chronic pain and fatigue. People living with chronic pain may find themselves distracted by the pain and the fatigue the pain causes. Not only does pain pull a person’s focus away from mental tasks, but it may disrupt the amount or quality of sleep they get, leading to fatigue. This, in turn, can contribute to brain fog.
  • Depression and anxiety. Many people with RA and other chronic pain conditions experience depression or anxiety. Depression and anxiety may also cause brain fog and an impaired ability to think straight. Similarly, depression can cause restlessness, insomnia, and other symptoms that may lead to decreased mental abilities.

Many other factors and conditions can cause brain fog in addition to RA. These include inflammatory or other medical conditions, mood disorders, and lifestyle factors.

The following conditions and lifestyle factors can all cause brain fog:

  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • lupus
  • fibromyalgia
  • thyroid problems, such as hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
  • chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
  • anemia
  • depression
  • pregnancy
  • menopause
  • chemotherapy
  • antidepressants
  • stress
  • lack of sleep
  • lack of exercise

Brain fog can be very frustrating for those living with RA. There are steps a person with RA can take to help treat and alleviate brain fog.

Treatment and lifestyle modifications to help manage brain fog associated with RA include:

  • disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs known as DMARDs
  • biologic drugs that block inflammation and relieve pain
  • getting more sleep
  • exercising regularly
  • psychological therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • staying organized by using a set schedule, a planner with key events, and to-do lists

Does rheumatoid arthritis cause slurred speech?

According to research, people with increased cognitive decline as a result of RA can experience difficulties speaking, along with other symptoms such as difficulty with focus or memory.

How do doctors identify RA brain fog versus a brain tumor?

A brain tumor can also cause brain fog. This can be a life-threatening condition, so noticing when a person’s brain fog may be something more than RA or another diagnosed chronic disorder is important. There are many types of brain tumors, and some may be cancerous.

If a person is also experiencing headaches, seizures, sleepiness or loss of consciousness, vision problems, personality changes, or other symptoms that may be neurological and are not consistent with any other known health conditions, they should see a doctor.

Learn more about the mental and physical signs of a brain tumor here.

Can you see rheumatoid arthritis on a brain MRI?

According to research, about 40% of people with severe RA may experience a fracture between the cranium and the cervical vertebrae. In some cases, this can lead to leptomeningitis, which is an inflammation of the brain.

For this severe condition, an MRI is necessary for a complete diagnosis. In addition, an MRI can also show brain lesions, which are more commonly the result of other disorders associated with brain fog, such as lupus or Sjorgen’s syndrome.

RA causes chronic inflammation. Along with its effects on the joints, RA may cause brain fog, which can involve difficulty concentrating, poor memory, or confused thoughts.

RA is a degenerative condition, meaning it tends to worsen over time and with age if people do not treat it correctly. However, treatments are available to prevent or slow the progression of RA and manage the symptoms.

With treatment and lifestyle modification, a person with RA can manage and limit brain fog.

Read this article in Spanish.